Get ready for camp by thinking about camp
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Summer CampConsiderations and Advice

Get ready for camp by thinking about camp

'If your kid literally gets carsick every day, think twice before putting them on a bus the entire summer.'

Summer is a party. (Photo courtesy of Falcon Camp)
Summer is a party. (Photo courtesy of Falcon Camp)

Outdoor swimming pools remain empty, but summer camp directors are teeming with advice. When asked for guidance about selecting a great option, local camp professionals had more pointers than marshmallows at an overnight.

When picking a summer camp, knowing who works there is essential, according to Nechama Gorkin, director of Camp Gan Israel Squirrel Hill.

“A camp program is really only as good as its staff,” she said.

One way of evaluating employees is by talking to directors and requesting information about their hires. Another means, Gorkin continued, is asking fellow parents or campers familiar with a camp and its counselors.

“Kids really know if someone’s paying attention to them,” Gorkin said.

Talking to other parents and campers is “really the best advice,” agreed Rachael Speck, division director of children and family day camping and teen engagement at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

“Find out how their experience has been, because a parent’s perspective and a child’s perspective will be obviously different — not better, not worse, but different from the perspective that a camp director or a camp staff member can give you,” she said.

Gleaning insight from parents and campers is critical, Speck added, but it’s also important to connect with camp administrators.

If there are questions about allergies, security or individual needs, for example, reach out to a director or other administrators. Camps often put a lot of information on their websites, but having a direct conversation ensures everyone is equipped for a successful summer, she said.

Creating crafts and memories. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)

In recent years, Speck and fellow camp leaders have worked to create a more inclusive camping experience.

“Whether you have a child who is neurotypical or neurodiverse, it’s important to know your child’s needs and whether the camp is equipped to meet those needs,” she said. “Not every camp is right for every child.”

Be sensible when selecting a camp, Dave Devey, director and owner of Falcon Camp in Carrollton, Ohio, said.

“It’s important to take a realistic view of your child and know what their interests are and what’s age-appropriate,” he said.

Sometimes parents fail to recognize that younger children may need shorter terms or a day camp instead of prolonged weeks away from home. Other times, mistakes occur because summer goals aren’t aligned, he explained.

“If you want your kid to be a soccer star and they aren’t particularly interested in soccer, then a specialized soccer camp is not a good fit. But if they want to be a soccer star and you send them to overnight camp with horseback riding, that’s not going to be a good fit either,” he said.

In nearly 40 years of leading Falcon Camp, Devey said he’s offered plenty of advice about choosing a summer option.

“One of the important things for first-time families is you’re going to be nervous,” he said. “You’re supposed to be nervous. It’s your job as parents, but you have to work through that. Speak to someone in administration at the camp. Look at their website. Ask questions. You have to be comfortable with the answers you’re getting. If you speak to a camp and you don’t get a good feeling, then go somewhere else; parent instinct is a good measure.”

EKC campers enjoying a sunny day on Cheat Lake (Photo courtesy of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)

Devey runs an overnight camp, but he said his advice applies to people considering day camps as well: “Look at the website, program, rules. Look at how they deal with discipline, communication, how they deal with staff ratio per camper. Ask about staff training and how they choose their staff.”

Parents, guardians or whoever is picking a summer option need to understand their role in the process, he said.

“If a camp has a rule that there are no cellphones allowed and you’re planning on hollowing out a book and sticking a phone in there so your kid can call you, don’t do it,” Devey advised. “You’re teaching them how to break rules.”

Part of what makes camp such a valuable experience is the countless hours of preparation.

Both Devey and Speck encouraged decision-makers to check a camp’s accreditation with the American Camp Association.

“That is the gold standard for camps,” Devey said. Inclusion requires directors answering questions “that you probably haven’t thought of asking,” like the  necessary number of showers or sinks.

Being part of the ACA means that “we have to adhere to over 300 operational and health and safety standards,” Speck said. “They help inform our staff training and really our entire camp operation.”

Whether it’s the ACA, American Red Cross or Department of Health, several entities ensure a camp follows best practices, she added.

Another thing for parents to consider when choosing a camp is cost, Speck said.

She suggests parents find out whether there are additional fees for food, transportation, swimming or towels.

“It’s important for parents to know what’s included and not included because this varies a lot from program to program, especially in the Pittsburgh area,” she said.

Rabbi Sam Weinberg, Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh’s principal and educational director agreed.

The Squirrel Hill-based Jewish day school operates a summer camp.

“Among the myriad of factors parents should also examine when choosing a camp are dates,” he said. “Check your family’s schedule. Too often parents sign children up for camp and don’t realize that the dates don’t actually meet their family’s needs.”

Also, for those seeking a particular level of religious observance, ask the director or camp leadership about food, Shabbat, dress code, playlists or other matters that ensure there’s a good match between camp and family, Weinberg said.

And consider the seriousness of transportation, he added. “If your kid literally gets carsick every day, think twice before putting them on a bus the entire summer.”

Camp is a wonderful chance for so many people to connect in meaningful ways, Weinberg said. Don’t squander the opportunities by failing to do the necessary homework. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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